22.00.0055: Thoughts on tags

A question at r/datacurator once again brings up the topic of tags vs. folders.

I say ‘once again’ because – and there’s no judgement here, it’s just a statement of fact – the good folks at r/datacurator seem really keen on tags.

Tags: what?

My system says that you should find the category that a thing belongs to – note my emphasis on the singular – and put the thing in that category. So your travel is 16 Travel and a trip is 16.37 Uruguay.

As with most things in life, there are two sides to the story. Categories are powerful because they force you to choose. That trip makes a lot of sense in travel, and you’re going to find it easily.

On the other hand, not everything fits neatly in a single category. Recipes are a good example, and one that I touched on in 22.00.0014 Categorisation.

Because you might cook Pad Ka-Prao Moo for dinner[1], and you want to store it in your recipe manager. What category is it?

Thai, obviously. Oh and dinner. Aah, and pork. And spicy. And goes with rice, and quick and cheap and impressive yet simple.

We clearly have a problem. See also: music, photographs, your movie collection, and many other things.

Tags allow you to assign multiple tags to a thing. It’s how my recipe app does things. It makes a lot of sense.

Sometimes.

The problem with tags

So you’ve decided to use tags. Great! Prob-lem solved.

Except now you have to organise your tags.

Let’s have a look at the list of genres in Apple Music. A quick count tells me that there are about 65 to choose from, and I haven’t added any of my own.

There’s electronic, electronica, house, IDM/experimental, techno, and trance, all of which could plausibly describe the same track.

And there’s no consistency. You might tag one track as electronic and a similar track as electronica on different days just because that’s the mood you were in at the time.

Back to r/datacurator

So the crew over on Reddit recommend to people that they use the tagging feature built in to their file system to tag documents:

You can use a single file system, but you should try to use some kind of metadata classification so you can can add additional per unit classification.
NTFS used in windows has space for metadata.

If you didn’t read the thread, the person is asking how to organise documents for their small business. And the suggestion is to use metadata per-file to add tags to, what, each document? For real?

And, to be clear, this means that you do not need a folder hierarchy. Because everything’s tagged! Just chuck it all in one big bucket.

I think this is really impractical advice.

My experience at work

I’ve seen this tried at work. SharePoint[2] lets you set up document libraries controlled by tags.

It is, without exception, total chaos.


The case for tags

I’m not saying that tags are bad. They’re great for your recipe app, or your photos.

Tomorrow I’ll explain why it might be a good idea to use Johnny.Decimal to organise your tags. :exploding_head:

But now, I have to cook.


  1. Guess what’s for dinner. ↩︎

  2. SharePoint is a horrible Microsoft product that people who work in large organisations have to use. If you’ve never heard of it I genuinely envy you. ↩︎

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A follow-up.

Following on from ‘thoughts on tags’ the other day, my idea — which I have not tested — is that you might organise your tags using the Johnny.Decimal system.

The problem was that we had, say, 65 music genres. In a flat list. With many that felt like they overlapped with each other.

So just apply the principles of this system to the tags themselves. And I think you could treat a tag as being analogous to a category; you don’t need to go all the way to IDs.

Those music genres might then become:

10-19 Rock
   11 Hard/metal
   12 Progressive
   13 Alternative

20-29 Electronic
   21 Ambient
   22 Techno/dance
   23 Synthwave 

30-39 Blues & country
   31 Gospel
   32 Americana

…or whatever, you get the idea.

The point is that you apply the basic principles to your tags: only two deep, no more than ten, and so on.

Tagging photos

The obvious use-case is photos. I don’t bother tagging mine,[1] but many people do. So build a tagging structure that has whatever you need: location, scene, people, mood.

If anyone tries this out, let me know.


  1. My photo library is a hot mess. It’s not organised at all. ↩︎

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Interesting rabbit hole I should dig into.

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I don’t think it’s fair to say that because systems organised with tags usually end up messy means that tags themselves are the problem - the people using them in such fashion are! After all, systems organised with folders are usually messy, unless we put some structure in place - be it JD or any other structure. So folders, tags, they’re all tools in our toolbelt, each have their respective use, both benefits and downsides, and we, as users, need to learn how to use them efficiently and in such a way that brings order, not chaos to our systems.

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Totally agreed, and I’ve been mulling this very topic myself. Tags can be super useful, but are sprawl-prone because they often don’t obviously have to conform to a structure.

When you’re in an index or a JD file system it’s clear that there’s a specified structure for things, and that you really need to conform to that structure. With tags, particularly at a workplace where you can simply add whatever you want, things aren’t so clear. I think this is where a lot of the downsides would arise.

I plan on using some tags, and they’ll conform to a category (that points me to a thing) or a specific bit of metadata that helps the system operate. As long as all roads land you a the same destination, they’ll help.

The idea of a "Location: " entry in a note is, to me, a tag - after all, a tag is simply metadata. And it’s useful because it conforms to an understood rule of a given system, e.g.:

..some stuff may be only located in this index, or on this computer, or an external system.

This tag will indicate where that thing is located, but only if it conforms to the Location: standard.

Fair points @rxlecky. And yeah @MattC we stumbled across this when Lucy was creating her index: because I hadn’t shown her how to use Apple Notes’ hashtags yet, she just recorded her location as text.

So she forgot that she’d used gmail as a location and used email later. (Which she then realised and corrected.)

Hashtags alas don’t auto-suggest/complete in Notes, but at least they’re more visible in the sidebar there and this might prevent such mistakes.

So yeah, don’t get me wrong. Not totally hating on tags; they have a place.

a few comments. I’ve tended only to use tags in my Obsidian for places (e.g. location of files). There is a great community plug-in called Tag Wrangler, which tabulates all tags and permits en bloc renaming to help with the consistency issue.

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